April 13, 2021

Student Grades Need to Count for Something

Casey Jagusch •

If you are in need of a good laugh, you should watch the long-running improvisation show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” where comedians use audience suggestions to act out absolutely hilarious skits. The tagline of the show: “Where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.” 

Unfortunately, and not hilariously, Los Angeles teachers have been living our very own version of the show since March 13, 2020. As it turns out, making things up as they’re happening doesn’t work well for the education of hundreds of thousands of students. One of the biggest missing pieces: clear and proactive guidance on grading policies. Teachers have been given the task of creating meaningful online learning experiences with little to no direction on how to measure student progress or gaps in learning. As pointed out in a Los Angeles Times January Editorial, grading policies need a major overhaul and reorientation and there’s no better time than now.

Early in the Fall 2020 semester, it became clear that many students were struggling to complete and submit assignments. As educators, we knew this was going to be an issue. We all saw families struggle with unreliable internet access, a lack of quiet spaces for students to study, and dwindling student motivation to attend online class and complete assignments. 

The direction provided by administrators and district leaders was that of compassion and understanding, both for students and ourselves. While it was important for us to hear this, we were left to wonder, how do we design feedback processes for students? Unfortunately, the lack of clear guidance seemed too similar to that tagline; everything seemed made up and the points didn’t matter. I know in my class (as in many of my colleague’s) that due dates were certainly made up and adjusted on a whim: I accepted “late” work from the first week of school until almost the last, and tended to grade work with copious amounts of generosity.  

The feeling is not limited to my class, or my school. In a recent survey of Los Angeles educators, only 35% of teachers surveyed felt the guidance they received about grading for this school year was “very helpful.” It seems no one had the “right” answer and therefore, no direct answer was given. 

The apex of the issue came during the last week of the fall semester. With so many students earning Fs, the district made the decision to override those grades into Incompletes, leaving it to teachers to decide what work students must complete to raise their grade to passing. Yet again, teachers were forced to improvise a solution and decide how to assist students, but with the added pressure of the end of the semester as a looming deadline. 67 of my students received Incompletes; in the end, only 2 submitted the required work to lift their grade.

So how does this improv show of grading end? Now in the second semester, we are being asked to determine what a letter grade means within our departments. This is an important step to ensure students are more successful this semester and that an A with one teacher means the same as an A with another teacher. However, longer term strategies are essential to course correcting, both literally and figuratively.

A larger discussion of grades and grading systems must happen prior to when in-person school returns. Innovative grading systems, such as adjusting the traditional percentage ranges for letter grades, can be an effective strategy as long as everyone agrees to the change. However, with institutions of higher education relying so heavily on grades and GPAs, these decisions of what is considered the norm would need to be made at a higher level than just a single school or district. That is why UTLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District must engage proactively on this issue and address the problem with long term solutions.

In the end, we all want to see the same thing: students achieving their goals and dreams. As it turns out, the points do matter, especially for our students.

Casey Jagusch
Casey Jagush is a 7th grade history teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.